When it comes to global climate issues, attention this past year has focused on the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, or China and India’s rapid shifts to clean energy. Meanwhile, the world’s other major greenhouse gas emitter is being ignored. Indonesia, a country that, depending on the scale of its now-seasonal fires, can be the world’s third to sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has done little to implement policies that would enable it to meet its already weak Paris agreement goals.
In fact, many of its actions are pushing the country in the opposite direction, toward greater emissions. This includes government plans to build over 100 coal-fired power plants alongside the push to expand palm oil production and increase local biofuel consumption. Factor in the massive expansion of a car-centric transportation infrastructure, including new highways across the archipelago, booming air travel, a growing middle class, and, unlike many of its Asian neighbors, very little investment in renewables, and you have the recipe for a climate disaster.
It’s not just Indonesia’s fault – the failure to scale up climate finance has meant that programs meant to stem deforestation have yet to bear fruit. Indonesia’s failure, since Paris, to address its emissions, could have global ramifications and if things continue on the business-as-usual path, critically damage global climate goals.
“Indonesia is too big to fail when it comes to climate because it is such a big emitter… because of deforestation and peat burning,” said Jonah Busch with the Center for Global Development. “It certainly makes it a lot harder to meet international climate goals if you have such a big emitter that [has] continued its big emissions.”
Indonesia’s Global Importance
Indonesia is a country that, despite its size and regional importance, regularly is forgotten or ignored on the global stage. This applies to climate issues as well. Despite its important role in the global fight against climate change, it gets little attention compared to other major emitters. Part of the reason is due to the uniqueness of its emissions. The other countries mentioned above are major emitters due to energy use, transportation, or air travel, the key focus of most international climate attention thus far.
“In climate in general, forests are underappreciated, not given enough attention, and marginalized in policy,” said Busch. “When a lot of people think about climate and greenhouse gas emissions, they only think about emissions from fossil fuels.”
On the global scale, forests matter, and land use is responsible for about a quarter of global emissions, with Indonesia the undisputed leader in this category. Yet, while the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement last year made headlines, as do India and China’s commitments and actions, Indonesia has drawn little attention, and that’s a problem. Jakarta arguably matters more. The U.S. withdrawal from Paris was a blow, but state and regional-level action likely means the country will still achieve its climate goals, and both India and China are actually on pace to blow past their commitments. Indonesia, however, has made little progress, with emissions still growing.
According to an analysis from the World Resources Institute, the country must made major changes if it is to have any hope of meetings its climate goals: an unconditional 26 percent reduction in emissions as compared to business-as-usual by 2030, which rises to 41 percent with international support. Indonesia needs to cut land-based emissions by about 80 percent to have any chance to achieve that goal.
“World leaders recognized the crucial role of forests in climate change mitigation in the Paris climate agreement and pledged to halt deforestation by 2020,” said Ratri Kusumohartono, forest campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia. “However, in spite of these commitments, the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests…shows no sign of slowing down.”
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is partly to blame. His administration has not taken forest protection seriously enough, focusing instead on economic development. This leads to some worrisome discrepancies. After the 2015 fires, Jokowi made some positive moves, such as creating a Peatland Restoration Agency, and, last year, extending the 2011 Deforestation Moratorium put in place by his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. At the same time, he is pushing forward with plans to build over one million hectares of palm oil and sugar plantations in Papua. His government has also been fighting against the European Union’s proposal to limit palm oil biofuel imports because evidence shows they do little to combat climate change due to – yes – deforestation and fires. His positive moves are more than negated by these steps, along with the evidence that deforestation is continuing mostly unabated.
The lack of action means that Indonesia has also fallen behind several developing nations in tackling climate change. This includes Brazil, which was, until 2014, the leading emitter of land-based emissions in the world, due to the rampant deforestation of the Amazon. But since the turn of the millennium, the country has made remarkable progress, mostly due to actions taken under then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There is much that Indonesia could learn from what took place in its similarly tropical, energy-hungry South American counterpart.
“You can’t say it’s impossible to reduce deforestation; you have this example of another country that has done it. If one country can do it, [Indonesia] can do it,” said Busch.
It’s not just India and Brazil that are leading the way. As mentioned above, China is dramatically cutting back on coal consumption; India is leading on solar. Even smaller neighbors are steaming ahead. Thailand’s solar industry is booming, and even Bangladesh has installed rooftop solar systems on over 3.5 million homes. There is no reason that Indonesia, with its large, growing economy cannot be replicating these models to reduce emissions and build up its clean energy portfolio.
If things continue as planned, Indonesia’s emissions could be much, much worse, with potentially disastrous consequences for the global environment. As an emerging economy, Indonesia has rapidly growing energy demands, but currently, it plans to meet future demand through the building of dozens of coal-fired power plants. Furthermore, its fast growing transportation sector is necessitating imports of more oil and natural gas. As the United States grows its domestic oil industry and China reduces is dependency on imports, Indonesia could become the world’s largest oil importer as soon as 2019. It is also projected to become a net importer of natural gas by 2020. If Indonesia fails to stem deforestation and continues with a coal, gas, and oil dependent energy infrastructure, its emissions could skyrocket.
Indonesia’s size makes it crucial to the global climate. Quite simply, there is no hope without action in the archipelago. Right now the focus is on forests, but in the future, its energy usage could be just as important. The other risk is, of course, to Indonesia’s economy. If its neighbors move toward clean energy and Jakarta sticks to coal, gas, and oil, the costs to public health and the environment could be huge. A study from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) echoed that fear. The irony would be that Jokowi’s economic development plans could actually fail if they don’t consider the costs of sticking to dirty energy.
“Renewable energy is already cheaper than coal in many markets around the world, and Indonesia can benefit hugely from this trend,” said Yulanda Chung with IEEFA in a press statement. “We think Indonesian planners are far less ambitious than they could be in development of solar, especially, and that a more progressive and modern approach would be in the best economic interest of the country.”
In fact, Indonesia is well endowed and could make a shift. It has ample sun, wind, wave, and geothermal energy potential, and there are some small, nascent signs of hope. Some lawmakers are pushing for better legislation to promote renewable energy. There is even a Green Economy Caucus in Parliament that wants to promote sustainable development. But they are far too small, and lacking in ambition.
Meanwhile, international support to protect forests might finally be coming, as the Green Climate Fund is preparing to begin financing projects, and Indonesia could be – at long last – ready to tap into $800 billion dollars in emissions reductions payments from Norway, which was pledged in 2010.
For now, though, Indonesia’s forests are still being cut down, and it is lagging behind nearly all of its neighbors in adopting clean energy. If things don’t change, the world’s most ignored big emitter could be the one that dooms the global climate.
Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.